Air Marshal Anil Chopra (r)
The large-scale surprise attack by Hamas militants from Gaza against Israel on October 07, 2023, left hundreds of Israelis dead, and many more injured. Significant numbers, including a few Israeli soldiers were taken hostage. The multi-pronged attack included rocket strikes, forced militant crossing into Israel, and commando entry using motor gliders. Israel responded promptly with retaliatory airstrikes followed by a formal declaration of war. The Hamas fighters had held-off longer than expected. Massive Israeli air assault continues using stand-off weapons. There have been considerable number of casualties on both sides and numbers continue to increase. Israel is getting all set for the ground offensive to weed out all Hamas presence from Gaza strip. There is also a risk of Iranian backed Hezbollah opening front from Lebanon. The world is trying to prevent an expanded conflict that could engulf the region with more global and regional powers taking sides.
The conflict in Ukraine has crossed six hundred days. Russia continues to control over 20 percent of Ukrainian territory. USD150 billion military and humanitarian aid has been received by Ukraine from the U.S. and European Union, among others. US President Biden plans to request $100 billion more in funding that would include money for Israel, Ukraine. Russia has been driven closer to China and become friendlier with Iran. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart and “dear friend” Xi Jinping met at China’s Belt and Road forum in Beijing recently.
The Ukrainian counter-offensive never took off as planned. Russian army was continuing its military operations in areas where it could improve its position. Russia is likely to take advantage of shifted global attention and launch a fresh ground offensive aiming to break through Ukrainian defences in the north-eastern Kupiansk-Lyman area, where fighting has “significantly escalated.”
Aerospace Equipment Highlighted in Ukraine and Israel
The never ending and dragging conflict in Ukraine is being studied across the globe. The ground offensive has been slow, and significant action has been seen in aerospace. Lot of critical aerospace equipment has got highlighted, including the importance of Satellite based Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance Reconnaissance (C4ISR); AEW&C and JSTAR; stand-off fighter strikes; anti-tank helicopter operations; stand-off weapons and cruise missiles; UAVs and kamikaze drones; anti-drone systems; Ground-based AD weapons; Hypersonic and directed energy weapons; and anti-tank missiles, among others. In Israel, additionally, used were ground launched rockets; motor gliders; precision-strike aerial weapons; AD systems to take-on rockets; laser weapons and the likes.
Also, the accuracy and lethality of weapons vis-à-vis the cost needs to be evaluated. Iron Domes capability to take on a huge barrage of rockets has been questioned. The cost of weapon-to-target ratios needs evaluation. There is a need to assess the efficacy of using expensive hypersonic weapons against static strategic targets, against use of conventional cruise or ballistic missiles.
Impact of War on Aviation Supplies from Russia
Sixty percent of Indian armed forces are of Russian origin. While India has been consciously trying to reduce dependence on Russia for arms, but, between 2011 and 2021 India’s imports from Russia were the highest at $22.8 billion. For the same period, India’s imports from the Western countries including Israel were $13.5 billion or around 60 percent as from Russia.
For long India has been making payments to Russia in dollars. Immediately after the Russian invasion, the USA had imposed sanctions and put restrictions on dollar payments to Russia. India had ordered some major systems from Russia including the S-400 AD system. Also, India purchased copious quantities of crude oil from Russia in the last year. All these payments had to be made in Indian Rupees. There is only finite amount that Russia can accept in this de-facto barter system. This would mean delays in payments, and in turn, supplies of some systems.
Russian Armed Forces require a continued supply of weaponry to continue the war in Ukraine, therefore production capacities have got diverted to own needs. This also affects foreign sales, even though arms exports are an important source of foreign exchange for Russia. Indian Air Force (IAF) also buys large amount of ammunition, and spares for its aerial fleets (Su-30 MKI, MiG-29M, MiG-21 Bison, IL-76/78, and Mi-17) and for ground-based systems of Russian origin (radars, Pechora, OSA, Igla). IAF has significant Russian aerial missiles (R-27, RVV-AE, R-73, Klub cruise missile and others), bombs (KAB, and others), and rockets in its inventory. Spares are also required for repairs and overhauls that are done in India. Some items still go to Russia for repairs and overhaul. Some of these supplies are getting delayed and could impact fleet serviceability. IAF also sources many An-32 spares from Russia.
The most important ongoing Russian system under delivery is the S-400 Triumf air defence system bought by India in 2018 for $5.4 billion. Three of these systems have been delivered and two more are awaited. They are bound to be delays. IAF could not use up its Capital budget allotments because this. IAF was also reportedly forced to cancel/postpone plans to purchase 48 Mi-17 V5 helicopters from Russia. Some of these will affect its overall modernisation plan.
Meanwhile, it is a good decision to go for India’s own Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) instead of Russian Ka-226T. The IAF will retire its MiG-21 Bison by 2025. India had been negotiating with Russia to acquire MiG-29s and SU-30s. This may also get affected.
Lastly there are issues of upgrades. India has been talking with Russians for Su-30 MKI upgrade. BrahMos missiles have been ordered in significant numbers. Some parts must come from Russia. Also, the newer variants of BrahMos must be developed. Similarly, there is need of some other weapons.
While Russian President Putin announced a large-scale effort to build up capacity to produce more weapons for the war, the same may not be the case for the exports.
Impact Ukraine War on Ukrainian Supplies
The main items imported by India from Ukraine are chemicals, equipment, machines, and engines. Bilateral trade between the two countries $2.8 Billion in 2018-19, with India being Ukraine’s largest export destination in the Asia-Pacific and the fifth largest overall export destination. While India military buys many marine engines, the IAF was sourcing bulk of its items for the An 32 fleet from Ukraine. There were other items like helmet mounted sights, and some missile test equipment. With significant part of Ukraine’s military industrial complex destroyed by Russia, such supplies are likely to be affected.
Impact of Israel-Hamas Conflict on IAF
8-10 percent of IAF assets are of Israeli origin. 37% of all Israeli arms exports in the period 2018-22 were to India. These included UAVs, UCAVs, drones, aerial radars, AEW&C radar, ground based radars, Aerostats, aerial and ground-based missile systems, electronic warfare equipment, targeting pods, PGM laser guidance kits, FLIR equipment, integrated helmets, head-up displays, and other avionics, among many others. Israel also supports India’s indigenous AD systems development including the Anti-Ballistic Missile system.
There are many defence joint-ventures, including the Elbit-Adani UAV manufacturing plant. All these items are critical operational systems. Israel also supports India in space-based sensors (RISAT), and intelligence. Israeli SPICE glide vehicles were used for the Balakot strike. Israel also supplies the much larger Crystal Maze (POP-EYE). The Special Forces of the two countries work together and use some similar equipment. The two work closely on cyber warfare equipment and software tools. For India, Israel remains a very dependable, ‘no-questions-asked’ defence systems supplier. Extended conflict in Israel would increase their own needs and thus impact India supplies.
Initial Military Lessons for IAF from Attack on Israel
For such a large-scale attack to take place there would have been lot of planning. Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel, is among the best. The fact that both Mossad and IDF failed to anticipate or prevent such an attack amount to an intelligence failure. Hamas could not have accumulated 5,000 rockets overnight. The capability to fire 5,000 rockets in 24 hours, something that Hamas in the past could not do even in many weeks of conflict, would have meant training and planning. Importance of human and electronic intelligence has again been underscored. IAF has had a Pakistani terror attack on Pathankot airfield. Jammu airfield had seen a Pakistani drone attack. IAF must defend its front tier airfields.
Threat evaluation is a dynamic process. Intelligence gathering must be all pervasive. It must be continuous, without break. Intelligence had failed us in Kargil. IAF must learn never to let its guard down. There should be no let-up when it comes to cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. India must remain ahead of the adversary. Multiple asymmetric threats from multiple directions must be catered for. Kamikaze drones and drone-swarms, though not used in Israeli attack can cause severe damage. Militants using paragliders must be factored. IAF must prepare for combination of asymmetric threats. IAF must coordinate with local police and Intelligence Bureau (IB) for the enemy sleeper-cells within. Airfield defences must be strengthened further. This exercise needs to be done in eastern sector also.
Technology must be used extensively for border and airfield security management. Day and night cameras, thermal imaging, electronic fences, motion sensors are required. Drones for surveillance are important. India must be prepared for simultaneous cyber-attacks. There is a need to build electronic redundancy. Vantage point of space and air must be exploited for intelligence and surveillance.
Social media has become a crucial factor. Information warfare impacts both tactical appreciation and morale. Cyber snooping is important. This needs close coordination between the security establishment, civilian professionals, and the influencers.
Capability building is a continuous effort. This is a deliberate activity that also requires funding. Punitive capability must be visible, and even advertised, so that it can function as deterrence.
Trigger events can happen at short notice. Military capability, training, and weapon stocking must be always in place. Air defence capability against a barrage of missile and rocket attacks, and drones is important. Security is an all of nation, system-of-systems approach. It must be managed unitedly.
Way Ahead Indian Air Force
India has a two-front threat scenario, with two nuclear power neighbours, both having significant military power. The involvement of India’s two principal military hardware providers Russia and Israel in war is significant and the impact may last for some time. It would mean an impact on significant 55% or so of Russian and Israeli military imports for India. There will surely be delays. These two conflicts have added to the impact that the IAF faced due to two years of Covid-19. India would have to find alternatives and try indigenising some items. This will have its own limitations.
While India’s arms dependence on Russia in absolute terms is still high, nevertheless, India’s imports from non-Russian sources are steadily growing and in-turn gradually reducing dependence. Since 2008, the U.S. has been more open to supplying arms to India, as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Aerial platforms got the big push. India acquired the P-8I maritime aircraft, C-17 heavy lift, C-130J for Special Operations, Chinook heavy-lift and Apache attack helicopters. India will soon acquire the General Atomics Predator MQ-9 UAVs and build the GE-414 in India. France has been India’s time-tested partner in aerospace. With them, it was business as normal even after India’s Pokhran nuclear tests. Fighter aircraft from Toofani, Mystere, Mirage-2000 to more recent Rafale have all proved their worth. French Alouette helicopters, and support for ALH aeroengine have helped India. Safran could one day partner GTRE or a private player to develop India’s indigenous fighter aircraft engine.
India’s thrust for ‘Atmanirbharta,’ Make-in-India’ is very well founded. India is already insisting on more Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) to set up manufacturing facilities in India. The most recent being the GE-414 engine for LCA Mk2. India’s private sector has already been galvanised. Indian private sector is already making many aerostructures, including fuselage, wings, and sub-systems for international customers. The MSME sector is making many sub-systems. The UAV and drone sector is picking up. Both, the defence PSUs and DRDO have been asked to promote private partners. India has also decided to upgrade its Su-30 MKI fleet on its own, albeit it may still source some items from Russia.
Air HQ has set up a directorate of indigenisation. HQ IAF Maintenance Command and the Base Repair Depots (BRD) are pushing indigenisation. Over 1,000 items have been identified and listed on the IAF website. Import substitution of spares, especially of Russian origin is being driven. A technology development fund has been set up. Procedures have been further simplified. It is time to indigenise from split pins, nuts, bolts and sealing rings and simple spares to larger aggregates. India has both economic and technological backing today.
These two conflicts should be a catalyst for pushing indigenisation. The current aerial fleet ratio of 60 percent Russian, 25 percent Western and 15 percent Indian must gradually target to be transformed to 40 percent Indian, 30 percent each of Russian and Western by around 2035. This will be possible if India quickly succeeds in the LCA variants and the AMCA. The import content in these two will have to reduce with more sub-systems made in India. Also, India must push for indigenous UAVs and drones. Time to act is now, lest India gets left behind.
AM Anil Chopra is the Director General of the Centre for Airpower Studies